Nov 6, 2019 in Research

Nanotechnology: The Future of Computing?

A number of achievements, one of which is nanotechnology, marked the start of the 21st century.  The real nanotechnology revolution takes place in front of modern people. This revolution is a set of techniques and methods used in the study, design and production of nanostructures, devices and systems. It includes targeted control and modification of the shape, size, interaction and integration of the constituent nanoscale elements, the presence of which leads to an improvement or to appearance of additional operating and consumer properties and characteristics of the obtained products. The importance and appeal of this technology is clear at the present time, but its possible negative effects in the future are the matter of debate of many experts. Thus, this paper will discuss nanotechnologies and their possible risks and threats in the future.

Nanotechnology is a method of creating heterogeneous composite materials and devices at the molecular level with the certain desired properties. The peculiarity of nanotechnology is that the creation of materials and devices at the molecular level involves the creation of a grain and cluster structure of the material, which significantly modifies the characteristic of physical processes occurring at spatial scales in the nanometer range. Thus, such properties as electrical conductivity and thermal conductivity will be determined not only by the properties of the bulk material, but the geometry and size of its component parts in nanometers. Nanoparticles can disintegrate under the influence of light and chemicals, as well as contact with microorganisms, but these processes are still not well understood.

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Variety of opinions in the field of nanotechnologies divided experts on two “camps” - supporters and ardent opponents. Supporters of nanotechnology have extremely high expectations for the future of the nanotechnology industry. Thus, according to Lux Research, the global market of nano-transformed goods will reach $ 4.4 trillion and 15% of the gross world product by 2018. Supporters of nanotechnologies think that nanotechnologies will further release the mental and physical performance from routine work and promise new opportunities for recreation industry. They also believe that nanotechnologies will bring the computerization of the world to a qualitatively new level, which can be compared with the change of adding machines on computers. Currently, the markets of nanoproducts are the fastest growing ones. For example, the average expected annual growth of nanotechnologies market is more than 40% for the period up to 2015.

However, opponents see a threat in the nanotechnologies’ introduction. It is, above all, about the possible biological and environmental hazards of nano-objects, total unemployment and monopoly. Today, the buyer of a commercial product pays for its design, materials, labor of workers, the cost of production, transportation, storage and sales organization. Flexibility of nanotechnology production and the possibility of issuing a radically better products suggests that ordinary products will not be able to compete with products of nanofactories in many areas. If the technology of nanofactories will belong to or controlled by a single organization, it can lead to a serious wave of monopolization. The products of nanotechnology will be extremely valuable by today’s standards. Monopoly will allow technology owners to set high prices for all products for a large profit. This means that millions of people in need will not have access to life-saving low-cost technologies. Over time, the competition will reduce prices, but emergence of monopolies is very likely on the early stage.

Biological mechanisms of the toxic effect of nanostructures have been very poorly studied. Insufficient attention is paid to the problems of bioaccumulation of nanoparticles and their transfer in the food chain. Chemical and biological weapons will become more dangerous, and it will be much easier to hide it. Terrorists and criminals with access to such technologies can cause significant damage to society. It will be possible to create new types of weapons to kill at a distance, which will be very difficult to detect or neutralize. Capture of criminals after the commission of such a crime will also become more complicated. Thus, many researchers and experts believe that nanotechnology is one of the major global threats of our time.

This situation has become a cause of many alarming warnings from experts. Nanoparticles can easily penetrate into the body of humans and animals through the skin, respiratory system and gastrointestinal tract. Now there is no doubt that some nano-objects can have a toxic effect on the cells of various tissues. In particular, such effects are inherent to carbon nanotubes, which are considered one of the most promising nanomaterials near future.  The situation is complicated by the fact that many nanostructures are produced not one, but several ways. This fact increases the range of risks that may face or have already faced by workers nanotechnology industry. On the other hand, it might suggest that externally the same nanoproducts made on the basis of different technologies will have different impacts on man and his environment. 

Despite of all of the risks and threats, the “scales” in the debate about nanotechnology are clearly leaning in favor of their lobbyists and followers. This situation is due to grantors, which provide huge grants to research centres.  Leading research centres, in turn, boost research in an effort to prove the validity of the received financial injections. The great example is the particle collider. There is no confirmed scientific results in its work, but the news that “scientists are faced with an unexpected effect” or “discovered a fundamentally new phenomenon” appear with surprising regularity. Investors hurry researchers up, while researchers mislead investors with imaginary results. If negative results are not worthless for “pure” science, then the modern highly technological and capital-intensive science has almost no room for error: investors and funders just cannot provide it. 

The situation is complicated by the fact that many nanostructures are produced not one, but several ways. This fact increases the range of risks that may face or have already faced by workers of nanotechnology industry. On the other hand, it might suggest that externally the same nanoproducts made on the basis of different technologies will have different impacts on man and his environment.

The following specific properties of nanotechnology are of the greatest concern: 

  • Invisible nature. The invisibility of nanotechnology in their use makes difficult the control and monitor of its effects;
  • Rapid development. High rates of nanotechnology development of hinder forecasting (especially in the long term), possible consequences and taking of appropriate actions;
  • Military use and use for security purposes;
  • Global impact;
  • The risk of “nano-divide.” The possibility of increasing inequality between developing and developed countries.

Today, the United States and other countries are trying to assess the risk of application and development of nanotechnology. However, the United States allocations for analysis of potential threats of nanomaterials are very low yet. According to expert estimates, their total amount is only $ 39 million, which is only 4% of the total allocation for nanotechnology coming from the federal treasury. Many experts assume that the political debate on the evaluation of the possible consequences of nanotechnology is behind from the actual technological development for about five years. It is necessary to remember the experience of nuclear technology, genetic engineering, etc., that is, take cautions and warnings quite seriously. 

U.S. Science Policy Council created the White Paper project, which is devoted to discussing the dangers of nanotechnology. To date, information about the consequences of uncontrolled releases of nanoparticles in the environment are quite poor. The project authors emphasize the need to fill these information gaps as soon as possible. They emphasize that a serious study of the behavior of nanoparticles in the environment has begun only recently. It is known, for example, the nanoparticles can be accumulated in the air, soil and wastewater, but the science has not yet enough data to accurately simulate such processes. Nanomaterials enter into chemical reactions easier than larger objects of the same composition, and therefore are capable of forming complexes with previously unknown properties. This fact increases the technological prospects of nano-objects and at the same time takes particular care to the associated risks. 

Thus, nanotechnology revolution is a natural stage of the global scientific and technological progress. It has a quite blurred future. Deep differentiated system of nanorisks and their high level objectively reflect the enormous potential of nanotechnology industry. Moreover, the unique properties of nanomaterials and nano-transformed products are objectively accompanied by unique risks. However, this does not mean that these risks and their associated threats should be ignored. Moreover, nanotechnologies are not yet amenable to state regulation. It is extremely difficult to use existing laws for this purpose. Therefore, there is an urgent need to create a fundamentally new legislation, new mechanisms and regulatory institutions (including international). Otherwise, the consequences can be very unpleasant.

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